He First Point is always important, more so in a Wimbledon final. I’d Tfelt good, I’d had those good sensations all morning; now I had to prove it to myself on court. Federer got in a good first serve wide to my backhand. I clawed the return back, better than he expected, deeper. He was preparing himself to move in behind that serve, using the forward momentum of the body to add power to his shot; but my return wrong-footed him, obliged him to shuffle back a couple of steps and hit the ball uncomfortably high on his forehand, on the back foot, limiting him to the power of his arm alone. It was a better return than I might have reasonably expected to a deep and difficult serve, one that
Immediately got him thinking, adjusting.
Break that easy rhythm of his, push him to the edge—that’s what I have to do against Federer, always. That’s what Toni said right back the very first time I played him, in Miami, five years earlier: “You’re not going to beat him on talent, on the brilliance of your shot-making. He’ll always be more able to make a winner out of nothing than you. So you have to press him all the time, force him to play at the very limit of his abilities.” Even though I won that first match of ours in Miami 6–3, 6–3, Toni was right. His serve is better than mine, his volley too; his forehand is probably more decisive than mine, his sliced backhand definitely is, and his positioning on the court is better too. There was a reason why he had been world number one for the previous five years and I had been number two for the previous three. Besides, Federer had won Wimbledon the last five years in a row. He practically owned the place. I knew I had to beat him mentally if I was to win. The strategy with Federer is never to let up, to try and wear him down from the first point to the last.
Federer struck that awkward first return of mine well to my backhand, and I tried to hit the ball back to his—applying the game plan right from the beginning—but he played around it, took it on the forehand. But now I had the initiative, I was in the center of the court, he’d had to push
Out wider. Then his forehand to my backhand, but he did not hit it too deep, allowing me to steer the ball straight and deep down the line, with no chance this time for him to play around the backhand. Federer angled the ball diagonally across to my forehand and I saw my chance to go for the winner. With him expecting to receive again on his backhand, I whipped the ball toward his forehand corner. The ball dropped just inside the baseline and spun, high and wide, beyond his reach.
A first point like that gives you confidence. You’re feeling in tune with the surface, you feel you’re controlling the ball and not that it is controlling you. On that point I had control of the ball in every one of the seven shots I hit. That gives you peace of mind. The nerves are working for you, not against you. It’s what you need at the start of a Wimbledon final.
A funny thing about Wimbledon: despite the grandeur of the place and the weight of expectations it generates, of all tournaments it is the one where I am able to recreate the calmest sense of home. Instead of staying in some vast hotel suite—some of the places where they put me up make me laugh, they can be so needlessly extravagant—I live in a rented house across the road from the All England Club. A normal house, nothing fancy, but big enough—three floors—for my family, my team, and friends to stay or come round for dinner. It gives this tournament a whole different feel from all the others. Instead of each of us being isolated in our hotel rooms we have a space we can all share; instead of having to drive through traffic to the courts in an official car, a two-minute walk and you’re there. Being in a house also means we have to do our own food shopping. When I can, I go to the local supermarket to buy a few of the things that I eat far too much of, like Nutella chocolate, or potato chips, or olives. I am not a model of healthy eating, not for a professional athlete anyway. I eat as normal people do. If I feel like something, I’ll have it. I’m especially mad about olives. In and of themselves they’re OK, not like chocolate or chips. But my problem is the quantities I eat. My mother often reminds me of the time when, as a small child, I hid inside a cupboard and devoured a huge jar of olives, so many I vomited and was sick for days. The experience might have changed my attitude to olives, but it didn’t and
I found them in Wimbledon but I had to be careful over the timing of my trips to buy them. If I went when the supermarket was crowded I ran the risk of being mobbed for autographs. This is an occupational hazard that I accept and I try to take it with good grace. I can’t say “no” to people who ask me for my signature, even to the rude ones who just stick a piece of paper in front of me and don’t even say “please.” I’ll sign for them too, but what they won’t get from me is a smile. So going to the supermarket in Wimbledon, while an enjoyable distraction from the tension of competition, does have its pressures. The only place where I can go shopping in peace—where I can do anything like a normal person—is my home town of Manacor.
The one soothing similarity between Wimbledon and Manacor is that house we all stay in and the pleasure of that short stroll to the courts, which reminds me of when I started playing tennis, at the age of four. We lived in an apartment opposite the town’s tennis club, and I’d cross the road and train with my uncle Toni, the resident coach.
The clubhouse is what you’d expect in a town of barely forty thousand people. Medium-sized, dominated by a large restaurant with a terrace overhanging the courts, all clay. One day I joined in with a group of half a dozen children Toni was teaching. I liked it right from the start. I was already crazy about football, playing on the streets with my friends every spare moment my parents let me, and anything that involved a ball was going to be fun. I liked football best. I liked being part of a team. Toni says that at first I found tennis boring. But being in a group helped, and it’s what made possible everything that followed. If it had just been me and my uncle it would have been too suffocating. It wasn’t till I was thirteen, when I knew my future was in tennis, that he began training me on my own.
Toni was tough on me right from the start, tougher than on the other children. He demanded a lot of me, pressured me hard. He’d use rough language, he’d shout a lot, he’d frighten me—especially when the other boys didn’t turn up and it was just the two of us. If I saw I’d be alone with him when I arrived for training, I’d get a sinking feeling in my stomach. Miguel Ángel Munar, still today one of my best friends, would
Come there two or three times a week; me, four or five times. We’d play between one fifteen and two thirty, during our lunch break from school. And sometimes after school too, when I didn’t have football practice. Miguel Ángel reminds me sometimes how Toni, if he saw my head was wandering, would belt the ball hard at me, not to hit me, but to scare me, to startle me to attention. At that age, as Miguel Ángel says, all our heads wandered, but mine was the one that was allowed to wander least. It was always me too that he got to pick up the balls, or more balls than the others, at the end of the training session; and it was me who had to sweep the courts when we were done for the day. Anyone who might have expected any favoritism on his part was mistaken. Quite the opposite. Miguel Ángel says he bluntly discriminated against me, knowing he could not have gotten away with it with him and the other boys but with me he could, because I was his nephew.
On the other hand, he always encouraged me to think for myself on the tennis court. I’ve seen reports in the news media saying that Toni forced me to play left-handed, and that he did this because it would make me harder to play against. Well, it’s not true. It’s a story the newspapers have made up. The truth is that I began playing when I was very small, and because I wasn’t strong enough to hit the ball over the net, I’d hold the racket with both hands, on the forehand as well as the backhand. Then one day my uncle said, “There are no professional players who play with two hands and we’re not going to be the first ones, so you’ve got to change.” So I did, and what came naturally to me was to play left-handed. Why, I can’t tell. Because I write with my right hand, and when I play basketball or golf—or darts—I play right-handed too. But in football I play with my left; my left foot is much stronger than my right. People say this gives me an advantage on the double-handed backhand, and that may be right. Having more feeling, more control on both hands than the majority of players, has to work in my favor, especially on cross-court shots, where a little extra strength helps. But this was definitely not something that Toni, in a moment of genius, thought up. It’s dumb to imagine that he might have been able to force me to play in a way that did not come naturally to me.
But, yes, Toni was hard on me. My mother remembers that as a
Small child sometimes I’d come home from training crying. She’d try to get me to tell her what the matter was, but I preferred to keep quiet. Once I confessed to her that Toni had a habit of calling me a “mummy’s boy,” which pained her, but I begged her not to say anything to Toni, because that would only have made matters worse.
Toni never let up. Once I started playing competitive games, when I was seven, it got tougher. One very hot day I went to a match without my bottle of water. I’d forgotten it back home. He could have gone and bought me one, but he didn’t. So that I’d learn to take responsibility, he said. Why didn’t I rebel? Because I enjoyed tennis, and enjoyed it all the more once I started winning, and because I was an obedient and docile child. My mother says I was too easy to manipulate. Maybe, but if I hadn’t loved playing the game, I wouldn’t have put up with my uncle. And I loved him too, as I still do and always will. I trusted him, and so I knew deep down that he was doing what he thought was best for me.
I trusted him to the point that, for several years, I believed the tall stories he would tell me about his sporting prowess, winning the Tour de France, for instance, or starring as a football player in Italy. I trusted him so implicitly when I was little that I even came to believe he had supernatural powers. It wasn’t till I was nine years old that I stopped thinking he was a magician capable, among other things, of making himself invisible. During family get-togethers my father and grandfather would play along with him on this, pretend to me that they couldn’t see him. So I came to believe that I could see him but other people couldn’t. Toni even convinced me he had the power to make rain.
One day when I was seven, I was playing in a match against a boy of twelve. We didn’t rate our chances very highly, so Toni told me before the game that if I went down 0–5, he’d bring on the rain so the game would have to be called off. Well, as I saw it at the time, he lost faith too soon. Because the rain started falling when I was down 0–3. Then I won the next two games and suddenly I felt confident about my chances. So I went up to my uncle during the changeover at 2–3 and I said, “I think you can stop the rain now. I reckon I can beat this guy.” A couple of games later the rain stopped, and in the end I lost 7–5. But two more years had to pass before I stopped believing my uncle was a rainmaker.
So there was fun and magic in my relationship with Toni, even if the prevailing mood when we trained was stony and severe. And we had plenty of success. If he hadn’t made me play without water that day, if he hadn’t singled me out for especially harsh treatment when I was in that group of little kids learning the game, if I hadn’t cried as I did at the injustice and abuse he heaped on me, maybe I would not be the player I am today. He always stressed the importance of endurance. “Endure, put up with whatever comes your way, learn to overcome weakness and pain, push yourself to breaking point but never cave in. If you don’t learn that lesson, you’ll never succeed as an elite athlete”: that was what he taught me.
Often I’d struggle to contain my rage. “Why is it me and not the other boys who have to sweep the court after training?” I’d ask myself. “Why do I have to pick up more balls than the other? Why does he scream at me that way when I hit the ball out?” But I learned to internalize that anger too, not to fret at the injustice, to accept it and get on with it. Yes, he might have gone too far, but it’s worked very well for me. All that tension in every single coaching session, right from the very start, has allowed me today to face up to the difficult moments in a match with more self-control than might otherwise have been the case. Toni did a lot to build that fighting character people say they see in me on court.
But my values as a person and my way of being, which ultimately is what underlines my game, come from my father and mother. It’s true that Toni has insisted I have to behave well on court, set an example, never throw a racket to the floor in anger, something I have never, ever done. But—and this is the point—if I had been brought up differently at home, I might not have paid him any attention. My parents always imposed a lot of discipline on me. They were very proper about things like table manners—“Don’t talk with your mouth full!” “Sit up straight!”— about the need to be courteous and polite to everybody—say “good morning” and “good afternoon” to people we meet, shake hands with everybody. Both my parents and, for that matter, my uncle Toni have always said that, never mind the tennis, their biggest desire was that I should grow up to be “good people.” My mother says that if I were not, if I behaved like a spoiled brat, she would still love me, but she’d be too embarrassed to travel halfway around the world to watch me play.
They drummed into me the importance of treating everybody with respect from an early age. Whenever our team lost a football match, my father insisted that I had to go up to the players of the rival team afterward and congratulate them. I had to say to each one of them something like “Well done, champ. Very well played.” I didn’t like it. I felt miserable when we lost, and my face must have showed that my heart wasn’t in the words I was saying. But I knew I’d get into trouble if I didn’t do as my father said, so I did it. And the habit stayed with me. It comes naturally to me to praise an opponent after he’s beaten me, or even if I’ve won, if he deserves it.
For all the discipline, I had an amazingly happy and warm family life as a child, and maybe that is why I was able to put up with the harsh treatment I received from Toni. One balanced the other out, because above all what my parents gave me was an incredible feeling of security. My father, Sebastián, is the oldest of my grandparents’ five children and I was the first grandchild. This meant that I was fussed over by my three uncles and my aunt, who had no children of their own then, as well as by my grandparents, right from my very first days. They tell me that I was the family mascot, their “favorite toy.” My father says that when I was only fifteen days old, he and my mother would leave me to stay overnight at my grandparents’, where my uncles and my aunt still lived. When I was a baby and then later when I was a child of two and three, they’d take me with them to the bar where they met their friends, chatted, and played cards or billiards or Ping Pong. Mixing in adult company became the most natural thing in the world for me. I have unforgettably warm memories of those times. My aunt Marilén, who is also my godmother, would take me to the beach in Porto Cristo, just ten minutes away from Manacor, which is inland, and I’d lie on her tummy, dozing in the sun. With my uncles I’d play football in the corridor of the apartment, or down in the garage. One of my uncles, Miguel Ángel, was a professional footballer. He played for Mallorca, and later for Barcelona and for Spain. When I was very small, they’d take me along to the stadium to watch him play. For all the haranguing I got from Toni, I am not one of those athletes whose life stories are all about overcoming dark beginnings in their rise to the top. I had a fairy tale childhood.
One thing I do seem to have in common with everyone I’ve ever heard about who has succeeded in sports is a fanatical competitive edge. As a little boy I’d hate losing at anything. Cards, a little football game in the garage, whatever. I’d throw fits of rage if I lost; I still do. Just a couple of years ago I lost at cards with my family and I went so far as to accuse the others of cheating, which I now see was going a little too far. I don’t know where all that comes from. Maybe from watching my uncles compete in the bar at billiards with their friends. Yet it used to amaze even them that, sweet as I supposedly was, I became transformed into a little demon whenever there was a game on.
On the other hand, the desire to succeed—linked to the knowledge that you have to work hard to fulfill your ambitions—definitely can be traced to my family. On my mother’s side, they own a furniture business in Manacor, the furniture industry having long been the heart of the town’s economy. My grandfather’s father died when he was ten, and from an early age he learned the family craft. He became a master furniture maker. In my mother’s house, where I live, we still have an incredibly fine chest of drawers that he made with his own hands. My grandfather tells me that in the year 1970, two thousand beds were made in Mallorca and the neighboring Balearic Islands of Ibiza and Menorca. Half of them were made in his workshops. One of my uncles, my godfather, runs the business now.
The genetic influence on me is even more clear on my father’s side of the family. Not that a passion for sports has always been what defines them. My grandfather, also called Rafael, is a musician. A story he has told us many times reveals what an incredibly single-minded and driven person he was when he was still young. When he was sixteen—he is in his eighties now and going very strong, still working in music, doing opera with children—he set up and directed a choir in town. A serious choir, so serious that when he was nineteen, the head of what was then the newly formed symphonic orchestra of Mallorca—we’re talking the late 1940s now—came to him and asked him if he could prepare his choir for a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Palma, the island’s capital. This was not long after the Spanish Civil War and the country was very poor. It was an
Amazingly ambitious enterprise. All the more so because, of the eighty-four members of the choir, only half a dozen knew how to read music. The rest were amateurs. But my grandfather did not let this deter him. They rehearsed every single day for six and a half months, and, as he says, “the day came when a Mallorcan heard Beethoven’s Ninth for the first time, live, inside a theater.” It was, as he tells it, a famous day in the island’s history. It would not have happened without him. And he was only nineteen.
I think it might have been a little disappointing for him that none of his five children showed any aptitude for music, and surprising that three of them should have turned out to be gifted at sports. Not my father, though. He’s a businessman, heart and soul; one of those who doesn’t just do it for the money, but for the thrill of it too. He loves making deals, setting up companies, creating jobs. He’s always been this way.
One summer when he was sixteen he set up a bar in Porto Cristo, the beach resort nearest to Manacor, where he organized musical events. From the proceeds he bought himself his first motorbike. When he was nineteen, he saw an opportunity in the used cars business. He found that agents were charging a lot of money for the paperwork needed to change the ownership of vehicles, so he figured out how to offer the service at a better price. He worked as a bank employee for a short while, got bored, and then, through a friend of his father—who aside from his music had a sideline in real estate—he got involved in a glass-making business in Manacor. They cut the glass for windows, tables, and doors. The business went well because of a tourism boom in Mallorca, and in two years my father raised a loan, with my uncle Toni as his partner, and bought out the company. Toni had no talent for, or interest in, business, so my father did all the work, allowing Toni to dedicate himself full-time to his tennis coaching, and to me. Today my father is as busy as he ever has been. He’s still involved in the glass business; he has interests in real estate and he helps explore potentially lucrative investments on my behalf. Thanks to the good luck I’ve had and the contacts I’ve made, he is operating at a higher level of business, internationally, than ever before. He doesn’t need to do this for himself, but he does it for me, and also because he enjoys it. He doesn’t stop; he can never have enough new challenges, which is
Becoming a coach; Rafael, who played football in a Mallorcan league for several years; and Miguel Ángel, who made it to the very top in football. His big break came when he signed, aged nineteen, for Mallorca, a club that played in the Spanish first division. The actual day when he signed the contract (with my father acting as his agent) was the day I was born, June 3, 1986. Miguel Ángel was a tall, strong, intelligent, all-terrain player, as capable of playing in defense as in midfield. And he scored a fair number of goals too. Anyone who is impressed by my physical condition or my hard work and perseverance should look at him: he carried on playing professional football at the highest level to the age of thirty-eight. He played sixty-two times for the Spanish national team and more than three hundred times in eight seasons for Barcelona, during which time he won five national league championships and the biggest trophy in club football, the European Cup. I went to watch him play often, but I especially remember him taking me to Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium, the largest in Europe, when I was ten, to play with half a dozen members of the first team after their official training session had ended. I wore a Barcelona shirt that day. A long time would pass before my family stopped teasing me about that because, despite adoring my uncle Miguel Ángel, I have always been and always will be a Real Madrid fan. As everybody knows, Real and Barça are the two most bitter rivals in world football. Why am I a Real fan? Simple. Because my father is, which gives you the measure of how great his influence has been on me as a person.
Every member of my family has contributed to who I am now. In the case of my uncle Miguel Ángel, I was lucky to get a taste of the kind of life that would await me after I made the grade as a tennis player. He was a big star, especially in Mallorca. In sports, along with the tennis player Carlos Moyá, who was once ranked number one in the world, he was the island’s pride. My uncle was a great example to me. He gave me a glimpse of the life I was to live: he made money and he became famous; he appeared in the media, and he was mobbed and cheered wherever he went. But he never took himself too seriously; he never
Believed it—he never felt he truly deserved all the adulation he received—and he always remained a modest and straightforward person. That for me he always remained just my uncle meant that I also learned from a young age to put all that celebrity stuff in perspective and, when the time came, to keep my feet on the ground. Miguel Ángel gave practical, flesh-and-blood solidity to the lessons in humility my uncle Toni and my parents taught me early on in my life. I’m very much aware now that everything that’s happened to me is not because of who I am, but because of what I do. There is a difference. There’s Rafa Nadal the tennis player who people see triumphing, and there’s me, Rafael, the person, the same as I always was and the same as I would have been whatever I’d done with my life, whether I’d become well known or not. Miguel Ángel’s also been important for my family: the experience with him prepared them for the experience with me. They were able to cope with my fame more easily and naturally than they might have otherwise.
Miguel Ángel, now assistant coach at Mallorca Football Club, in the Spanish first division, points out to me these days that other people whose family members have been famous let things go to their heads when they themselves become well known. He says that, quite apart from anything he might have done, my parents and Toni are the ones who prepared me to deal with all the trappings of celebrity, and he praises me for having shown the intelligence to learn those lessons well. Miguel Ángel also believes that I am not fully conscious of the magnitude of what I have achieved. He may be right and, if so, it is probably just as well.
Things might have turned out very differently for me if I’d opted to play football for a living instead of tennis. Football was the game all kids played in Mallorca, whether they had a family connection with the sport or not. I took the game deadly seriously. Miguel Ángel lived at home with my grandparents in the early years of his professional career. When he had a game the next day, I’d say to him the night before, “Come on! We’ve got to train! We have to win tomorrow!” And with great solemnity, at ten at night, me just four years old, I’d lead him and my uncle Rafael down to the garage for a session of hard running, with and without the ball. It’s comical thinking about it now, but I think
Football was my passion as a child, and remains so today. I can be at a tournament in Australia or Bangkok, and if there is a big Real Madrid game on TV at five in the morning, I’ll wake up to watch it— even, sometimes, if I have a match on later that day. And I’ll build my day’s training program, if need be, around the timing of the games. I’m a fanatic. My godfather remembers when I was four years old, how he would show me pictures of the shields of all the teams in the Spanish first division, and—to his amazement—I’d be able to put a name correctly to all of them. Playing at any level, even if it was just a little game in the garage with one of my uncles, I’d get terribly angry if I lost. And I never wanted to stop. My uncle Rafael still recalls, with some pain, the times when I’d stay at his home on Friday night and then wake him up at nine thirty, when he’d gone to bed the night before at five, to get him to come out and play with me. I always managed to convince him. A part of him hated me at the time, but he tells me he found it impossible to resist my enthusiasm. These days I’m on the receiving end. I am the oldest of thirteen cousins, and it is they now who wake me up to play after a long night out. But I’m always up for it. Because I just enjoy it so much and because I never forget how seriously I took the game as a child, especially after I started playing for the local Manacor team competitively in a kids’ league at the age of seven.
My dad and Miguel Ángel enjoy reminding me how after each of my matches I’d analyze the plays as studiously as we did my uncle’s first division games. I’d discuss my failings as well as my goals, which I scored a lot of from my position on the left wing of the attack (about fifty a season), despite being the youngest member of the team by a year. We trained all week, and on the night before a match I’d be a bag of nerves. I’d wake up at six in the morning to think through the game and prepare myself mentally for it. Partly to calm my nerves, I’d always clean and polish my boots before a match. My mother and sister chuckle when they remember this, because they say that when it comes to sports I am a disciplined and orderly person, but in
Everything else I am distracted and chaotic. They are right. My room at home is always a mess—my hotel room when I am traveling too—and I often forget things. All my focus is on the game I am playing, as it was back then before a big match. I’d visualize the game ahead, imagine goals I might score and passes I might make. I’d limber up in my room. I’d prepare almost as intensely as I do before a big tennis match now, and with as much tension. Looking back on it now, it’s funny, but then it was the world to me. More important than tennis, at first, for all the intensity of my sessions with Toni and the belief he transmitted to me that I’d play for a living one day. My dream then, like so many boys my age in Spain, was to be a professional footballer. Even though I was playing competitive tennis too, from the age of seven, and doing well, I always got more nervous before a football match. I guess it was because I wasn’t playing for myself alone; I felt a sense of responsibility toward my teammates.
I also had a blind faith in our capacity to win games, even when all seemed lost. My uncles remind me how I was always so much more convinced of our chances than the rest of the boys on our team, how there were games when we were losing 5–0 and I’d be there in the locker room yelling, “Let’s not give up! We can still win this!” Or the time when we lost 6–0 away in Palma, and on the way back I said, “It doesn’t matter. When we play them at home, we’ll win.”
But there were more victories than defeats. I remember lots of games vividly. I remember, in particular, the season we won the Balearic Islands championship, when I was eleven years old. The decisive game was against Mallorca, the big team from the capital of the island. We were losing 1–0 at halftime but came back to win 2–1. A penalty decided the game for us. It was a run I made into the penalty area that provoked a player on the other team into handling the ball right on the goal line. The normal thing would have been for me to take the penalty, as I was the team’s top goal scorer, but I didn’t dare. You look at me now playing a Wimbledon final and you maybe wonder why not. Well, strength of character is something I’ve had to work on. Taking on that responsibility was too much for me at that moment. Luckily, my teammate scored. The joy of winning that championship was as great as the joy of winning a Grand Slam tennis tournament. It
I don’t think there is anything in any area of life that gives you the same rush as winning in sport, whatever the sport and at whatever the level. There is no feeling as intense or as joyous. And the more you crave winning, the greater the rush when you succeed.
My first taste of that in tennis came when I was eight and won the championship of the Balearic Islands in the under-12s category. That ranks for me, still today, as one of the greatest victories of my career. A difference of four years at that age feels like an eternity; the older children in my category seemed like distant, higher beings. That was why I entered the tournament with no notion at all that I might win. I’d only won one tournament up until then, and it was against children my own age. But by now, and for over a year, I’d been training with Toni practically an hour and a half a day, five days a week, every week. I don’t imagine any other boy competing in that tournament trained as much as I did, or with as hard a coach. I also think that, with Toni’s help, I had a better understanding of the game than other kids. That’s what gave me the edge, and maybe still does.
If you watch the number ten player in the world and the number five hundred in training, you won’t necessarily be able to tell who is higher up in the rankings. Without the pressure of competition, they’ll move and hit the ball much the same way. But really knowing how to play is not only about striking the ball well, it’s about making the right choices, about knowing when you should go for a drop shot or hit the ball hard, or high, or deep, when you play with backspin or topspin or flat, and where in the court you should aim to hit it. Toni made me think a lot about the basic tactics of tennis from an early age. If I messed up, Toni would ask, “Where did you go wrong?” And we’d talk about it, analyze my mistakes at length. Far from seeking to make me his puppet, he strove to make me think for myself. Toni said tennis was a game in which you had to process a lot of information very fast; you had to think better than your rival to succeed. And to think straight, you had to keep your cool.
By pushing me always to the edge, he built up my mental strength,
An effort that paid dividends in the quarter finals of that first under-12s championship I played, in a match where my rival was the favorite, a boy three years older than me. I lost the first three games without winning a point but ended up winning in straight sets. I won the final in two sets too. I’ve still got the cup at home, on display alongside the trophies I’ve won as a professional.
It was a very important victory, for it provided me with the impetus for everything that followed. But the setting was far from grand. For the final, in the neighboring island of Ibiza, about fifty people turned up— most of them my family members. They were happy when I won, I remember, but nothing over the top. No wild celebrations afterward: that is not our style. Some kids, in tennis as in other sports, are driven by the ambition of their parents, usually their fathers. I had Toni. But the intensity of his desire for me to triumph was complemented in a healthy way by my father’s relaxed attitude to the whole thing. He was far, far removed from those parents who aspire to achieve their lives’ frustrated dreams through the success of their children. He drove me to games up and down and across Mallorca every weekend—for which I can never thank him enough—and he stayed to watch me play, not because he wanted me to be a star but because he wanted me to be happy. It never crossed his mind in those days that I’d end up being a professional tennis player, never mind that I’d win what I’ve won.
There’s an anecdote from my childhood my father and I both remember well that reveals his attitude toward me and my attitude toward tennis, and how different each was. It was two years after I’d won the Balearic Islands championship, just after the summer vacation, in September. I’d had a really fun August with my friends, fishing, swimming in the sea, playing football on the beach. But I hadn’t trained much, and then, suddenly, I was playing in a tournament in Palma. My father drove me there, as usual, and I lost. I still remember the score: 6–3, 6–3, against a guy I should have beaten. On the way back home in the car I was deathly silent. My father, who’d never seen me so gloomy, tried to cheer me up. He said, “Come on. It’s not such a big deal. Don’t feel bad. You can’t always win.” I said nothing. He couldn’t shake me out of my dark mood. So he went on. “Look. You’ve had a fantastic summer with your friends. Be happy with that. You can’t have
Everything. You can’t be a slave to tennis.” He thought he was presenting me with a convincing argument, but I burst out crying, which shocked him still more because I never cried. Not then. He insisted. “Come on, you’ve had a terrific summer. Why’s that not enough?” “Yes, Dad,” I replied, “but all the fun I had then can’t make up for the pain I’m feeling right now. I never want to feel this way again.”
My father repeats those words to this day, and he is still stunned that I should have said something so perceptive, and so prescient, at such a young age. He sees that exchange we had in the car as a defining moment, as a day in which his understanding of his son changed, and my understanding of my ambitions in life changed too. I grasped that the one thing that upset me above all other things was the feeling that I had let myself down, that I had lost without giving my best. Instead of driving back home, he took me to a restaurant by the sea to eat what was then my favorite food, fried shrimp. We didn’t talk much as we ate, but we both knew a bridge had been crossed. Something had been said that would define and shape me for a long time to come.
Eleven years later, in 2007, I relived that same sense of despair after losing the Wimbledon final to Roger Federer. As the tears fell, I thought, “I never want to feel this way again.” And I thought that again, but in a much more collected and constructive frame of mind, at the start of the rematch in 2008.
Winning that first point on Federer’s serve, and winning it well, was the first step in curing a hurt I’d been carrying for twelve months. But then, on the second point, after a decent rally ended with me going for the winner too soon and hitting a rather wild forehand out, it was back to the beginning. That’s tennis. You play a great point, you win with a fine shot at the end of a long and tense rally, but that has no more value in the final score than the gift of a point I gave him here. That’s where the mental strength comes in, what separates champions from near champions. You put that failure immediately behind you, clean out of your mind. You do not allow your mind to dwell on it. You draw, instead, on the strength of having won the first point and build on that, thinking only of what comes next.
The problem was that all too quickly he began to show why he was the best in the world. He won the game with a bullet of a diagonally
Angled backhand, with a forehand drive down the line and with an ace. I went back to my chair the wiser and, in the long run, the stronger for having received an instant reminder that this was not going to be a repeat of the easy win I’d had over him in the French Open only twenty-eight days earlier; and a reminder too that Federer’s serve, on a grass surface that benefits the big servers, was much better than mine.
He won that first game at 15, but there was some consolation, and much to sustain my belief in victory. Though I’d lost four of the five points, we’d had long rallies in each, in all of which I had been timing the ball well. He’d had to fight to win his serve. The disadvantage was that now I’d have to come from behind, possibly for the duration of the set, to remain on level terms.
Things went better than I had expected. The plan was to serve to his backhand corner, which I did on every point in the second game, and practically every service point throughout. The fourth point of that game encouraged me to continue in that vein. I served to his backhand; he hit a high, sliced return, which I hit deep to his backhand again; then the same again and again, hitting the ball with top spin high and deep to his backhand, pinning him back uncomfortably. Four balls, one after the other, on the same spot and high to his left. That gave him little option each time but to float a slice back to the center of the court, giving me time to get into position and place the ball exactly where I wanted it to go. If I had hit to his forehand, he would have risked a flatter, stronger return and I might have lost control of the point. That way, I did control the point, which ended with him losing his cool for a critical instant and going for a backhand drive that flew high and way off course. I wasn’t going to win every point this way, but here was a clear signal that this was a plan I had to stick to.
And next game, the breakthrough. Federer had only lost two service games in six matches on his way to the final; this would be his third. I won one point with a shot deep to his forehand corner, but otherwise kept pinning him back on the backhand side. Three times there he fluffed his shots. I was 2–1 up, next up to serve, and, for now, winning the psychological battle, which usually translates into you playing better than your opponent, because you’re thinking more clearly. I felt satisfied but not elated. There was a long road ahead, and any thought
Of victory, any hint now of a movie with a happy ending entering my head, would have been suicide. What I had to do was keep focused and transmit to him by my actions and my demeanor that I was not going to flag on any point. If he wanted to beat me, he’d have to play every single point well, very well; not only would he have to be at the top of his game, he’d have to be at the top of his game for a long time. My objective now was to convey to him that he was going to have to spend hours stretched to the limit.
He got the message. He did not let up again. But it was too late. We both played at our best to the very end of the first set, but I held all my service games and won it 6–4.